Discovering the lost sketchbooks of Albert Wainwright

Classmate to Henry Moore, contemporary of Christopher Isherwood and forebearer to David Hockney, Albert Wainwright was a remarkable artist. His sketchbooks capture gay culture of the interwar years, and now, thanks to a new book, they have been unearthed,

Albert Wainwright’s remarkable and graphic 1920s sketchbooks captured Anglo-German relations between the wars and the gay culture of that period, interspersed with large sections that focus on his adolescent German muse Otto and rural German architecture, much of which was bombed during the Second World War.

The new book, titled Albert & Otto, is thanks to the determined pursuits of independent Portsmouth-based bookseller Callum James, a specialist in gay literature, and his editor friend Nick Elm. The pair have been chasing the lost legacy of Albert Wainwright for years, stalking the sketchbooks from owner to owner until eventually their current executor, the reclusive collector Robert Orme.

Persuading Orme to share the top shelf of what may now be a potentially priceless collection, this astonishing new book Albert & Otto presents a trio of Wainwright's sketchbooks within one jacket.

Born in 1898, Wainwright was a boarding school master who filled his holidays with overseas rural excursions. Unlike his better-known contemporaries Isherwood and Auden who garlanded Berlin as the global epicentre for homosexual proclivities and thinly-veiled sex tourism, Wainwright preferred to lose himself in Germany's remotest regions, using his tin of watercolours to capture the life less documented.

A star pupil at Castleford School, Albert Wainwright was one of two boys who caught the eye of small-town art teacher Alice Costick. In a Billy Elliot-type story, Miss Costick decided to lay on special evening classes for her two protégés in the hope that Leeds College of Art would accept them, and she clearly had an eye for talent. The other boy was called Henry Moore.

A conscientious objector, Wainwright spent the war in Yorkshire painting camouflage. He filled thirty sketchbooks in total that depicted rural scenes, architecture, peasant villagers and young men. He forged a side-business by painting portraits in Robin Hood’s Bay, mainly of his friends' sons, as well as local scenery. Wainwright began to receive recognition in the art world, and was given an exhibition in Wakefield, but then he collapsed suddenly on a bus journey and died from what turned out to be meningitis.

Sadly but inevitably it was Wainwright’s strictly Methodist sister Maud who inherited his life’s work, and like poor Lord Byron before him, Wainwright suffered the posthumous injustice of having his family destruct his inwardly reaching diaries as they outwardly reached to the sitting room hearth and burned them under the selfish and thinly-guiled excuse of “saving his reputation”. Ninety per cent of his legacy went up the chimney.

However, three sketchbooks miraculously survived as a Manchester art dealer Ian Starr bought a big bundle off Wainwright a few years before his untimely death, safely alleviating a sizeable body of work from the indignant family fireside of future years. It is these beautiful remnants that are published in Albert & Otto.

The book is split into sections, "Germany 1929", "Otto in Germany 1929", and "Otto in England". Wainwright’s younger lover and long-time muse Otto was the son of Wainwright’s friends. Presumably Otto's parents didn’t suspect anything unusual when Wainwright proposed taking the boy away for weeks at a time. Some of the results of these uninhibited holidays are laid out in the clear pink brush strokes!

As well as Otto, Wainwright painted other boys too and had a lot of enthusiasm for developing Anglo-German relations between the wars via school exchange programmes. Assisting the Castleford headmaster J R Dawes, Wainwright would either take a bunch of Yorkshire lads off into the sticks of northern German, or host harangues of German boys on home pastures. In a similar vein to the fictional League of Gentleman character Herr Lipp, there is little doubt that Wainwright used his socio-political exchange programme to vent his obsession with the adolescent male figure.

Bizarrely, at the time of his death, Wainwright lived only a few fields away from a then six-year-old David Hockney. Turning the pages of Albert & Otto there are jaw dropping similarities between Wainwright and Hockney’s eye for rural scenes that are at once strangely vivid and yet reticent. Both artists also share the same striking flick in subject matter between the homosexual and the horticultural, inflating both themes with that strange brand of jovial gravity. One can cannot help but wonder if Wainwright was an early influence on Hockney, albeit via Wainwright's sporadic bouquet of local exhibitions.

In James and Elm's book it is the most graphic watercolours and line-drawings of Wainwright’s that initially grab the viewer’s attention. Young Otto in one picture sunbaths naked on a beach of prehistoric grit - Whitby’s stormy Saltwick Bay. Another sketch has Otto rolling his legs back over his head playfully while throwing a cheeky grin at the artist. There are numerous sketches that take place in German gymnasiums and summertime park scenes, where it was then the norm for German boys to play-fight in the buff.

Yet it is Wainwright’s more subtle depictions of rural German landscapes and his crush on quaint architectural details that I hope might procure a sudden rise in interest and monetary value for his work within art buying circles.

One watercolour shows a mysterious fairy-lit boat twinkling merrily, as viewed from the banks of a silent moonlit pond. Haunting, enchanting, completely unexplained. A few pages along there is painting of interconnecting telegraph lines sticking out menacingly in a  field at sunset. Wainwright's sometimes cartoony touch that he brings to provincial windmills, distant power stations and short-tempered cattle herders bears a strange resemblance to the work of present-day Japanese anime house Studio Ghibli.

These still life watercolours are interspersed with original poetry, music scores and quirky military doodles in which Wainwright mimics the gently-snowballing propaganda that he witnessed first hand while touring rural Germany.

This long-awaited release of the under-appreciated paintings of Albert Wainwright are a valuable addition to art history and the more fragile history of gay culture. Fragile because Wainwright’s small painterly pages are windows into a fascinating past that for decades historians refused to document. Powerful because Wainwright’s work also challenges the gay ethos of today. Rather than seek approval from a thankless society and seek to tie the knot before the altar, Wainwright belonged to a generation of gay thinkers who sought solace in the margins, in the nourishing detachment of the great outdoors and in the pleasure-seeking psyche of the nudist.

Hopefully Albert Wainwright will no longer have to settle for the bronze plinth, and instead enjoy some of the recognition that his old school buddy Henry Moore has been basking in all these years. Henry Moore's sculptures of fat ladies may have been lying in Yorkshire's chilly sculpture park for years, but Wainwright's boys were doing it for real a long time before. Living sculptures, now available in book form for the first time.

Albert & Otto: Albert Wainwright's Visual Diary of Love in the 20s is available on Amazon from Callum James Books

Living sculptures: a glimpse of the treasures inside Wainwright's sketchbooks.
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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood